Unveiling of energy plan likely to create debate

White House aides say many groups advised on privately crafted proposal

May 15, 2001|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - The energy plan that President Bush is to unveil this week was written in secret, which might have helped his aides assemble a complex policy puzzle but also could lead him into a political debacle.

Like many presidents before him, Bush prefers to develop policies in private, where he or his staff can solicit unvarnished opinions and make policy proposals before the political debate begins.

And aides say publicizing his proposal Thursday will be just the start of a debate that will likely grow to include the public, interest groups and Congress.

But in approaching such a complex and contentious subject as energy in secret, Bush risks emulating two other secretive White House operators who watched major plans drafted in secret die in public. President Jimmy Carter's far-reaching energy plan failed in 1977, and former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's 1994 plan to overhaul the nation's health care system was rejected by Congress.

White House aides insist they have avoided that risk.

"The process has been incredibly inclusive," said Juleanna Glover Weiss, a spokeswoman for Vice President Dick Cheney, head of the White House task force that developed the energy plan. "Anybody who wanted input has gotten input."

Weiss said that between 300 and 400 groups asked to speak to the task force and that at least 130 were invited for meetings either with task force staff or with Cheney. She said the groups included representatives of the oil and gas industry, electric utilities and nuclear power plants, and environmentalists.

With the plan complete, White House aides also met yesterday with labor union leaders, and Cheney plans to meet today with advocates of renewable energy sources, such as solar power.

But the White House refused to identify which groups were included. Cheney's task force also refused to conduct any of its nine formal meetings or additional informal meetings in public. And the group refused to share any minutes of task force meetings with a group of congressional Democrats, or even to admit whether minutes were kept.

Andrew Lundquist, executive director of Cheney's task force, said in a letter to Congress that the task force was not covered by the public-disclosure requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

It is not unusual for a president to develop his policies and proposals largely in private, said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. Presidents want to hammer out the details in private to keep critics from seizing on a single part before they can present the package on their own terms.

"They tend to err on the side of secrecy," Green said.

Secrecy while developing a policy also can allow the White House to float trial balloons and then alter details without embarrassment if hostile reaction makes that necessary.

For example, Cheney's speech last month in Toronto saying that the plan would focus on energy supplies and dismissing conservation might have been such a tactic, Green suggested. Facing a quick round of criticism, Bush said that he planned to stress conservation as well.

But developing a policy plan in secret also keeps the White House from consulting with members of Congress - notorious leakers of secrets - and that can create problems - from a failure to recognize political dangers to bruised egos - on Capitol Hill.

The modern model of how not to prepare plans secretly is Hillary Clinton's health care plan. Republicans complained about the secrecy of the decision-making process, and eventually even many congressional Democrats came to resent the White House's efforts on behalf of her contentious plan.

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